Lewisburg is a work camp. All inmates here are assigned a job. These jobs range from working in the kitchen to feeding the 300 plus population to yard work and plumbing. We are all paid a salary as well, ranging from $0.15 up to $1.00 an hour. It’s tax-free income to boot! A week or so after arriving I was assigned my job as a teacher. Just as in the civilian world, teaching is one of the lowest paid jobs–about $10 dollar per month–but, it was my first choice anyway.
There are many classes offered here, but the core of the education department is the GED program. Additionally, there are continuing education courses ranging from Spanish to entrepreneurship. I focus most of my time on teaching math to the GED students.
Math is always a tougher subject to teach but I love it. Math has always been my strong suit and I enjoy being able to share that gift with others. The GED is geared to what you might think of as pre-algebra level with some basic geometry and algebraic expressions thrown in as well.
Some of the students are very capable and simply didn’t earn their diploma due to the circumstance that may have led them here. Others have learning disabilities and struggle more. The good news is that the student-teacher ratio is close to 1:1. Monday through Friday I teach a morning class and an afternoon class. We usually start with a lesson that I teach to the group. Then we break out into one-on-one sessions with the tutors and students working together at whatever pace is best for the student.
Unfortunately, attending GED classes can be frustrating for some. The GED program is mandatory for those without a high school diploma. But, being in class takes them away from their job. Jobs can be important in prison.
Living in prison costs about $300 or more per month. You must buy your own socks, underwear, work out clothes, shoes, toiletries and other mandatory items. So, to kit out in the first month or two can easily cost a few hundred right out of the gate. Additionally, if you want any “luxury” items such as dental floss, snack food, or long underwear then you can easily spend another $50 or more per month. Calling home is $0.30 per minute and you max out at 300 minutes per month–another $90.00 per month. Email is $0.05 per minute and can easily add up to $50 or more per month. Stamps are normal cost. We can even buy an MP3 player ($80.00) and download songs at $2.00 per song. All of this adds up to $300 or more per month or more.
This money has to come from somewhere. For most inmates they have family and friends send money to their account. In some cases siblings, friends, parents all chip in a few dollars per month to fund the living expenses of their loved ones who are incarcerated. This can be a real financial strain on families who are already struggling to survive–perhaps with the main breadwinner missing in action.
But, thankfully for some, Lewisburg has a work program that can really help guys who find themselves short of cash. It’s called Unicor. Inmates can choose to work at a nearby, government owned, manufacturing facility. The inmates construct office furniture for government offices all around the country. This job pays very well–around $200 per month. This is an unheard of amount for most prison camps.
So, back to education… If an inmate is required to go to GED classes then it could take them away from their very important job. School becomes a punishment in some type of upside down, dystopian logic.
In addition to math I teach a class on resume writing and interviewing skills, a class on financial markets (a bit ironic for sure), and now a public speaking course. The resume class is particularly enjoyable. First, it’s a volunteer continuing education class and second, most of the students are near the end of their sentence and looking toward their free future and are trying to find a job. It’s great to speak to them about their plans, help them brainstorm their capabilities, write a resume and then practice interviewing.
A lucky few have supportive families and opportunities waiting for them upon their return. But, the vast majority are facing a bleak and frightening unknown. Felons have many challenges they must conquer when they are released.
Most companies will simply not hire felons. Some do, but with millions non-felons unemployed in this country felons face an uphill battle. Additionally, there are millions working their way through the prison system and they are all competing for those very few available jobs. Some states have begun to implement reforms that attempt to level the playing field for non-violent criminals, but no matter the disclosure law, a huge gap of time on a resume will inevitably lead an employer to an unavoidable bias.
We all love Google, of course, but our criminal record is forever only a few key stokes away. “Moving on” from your past isn’t really possible. An electronic “scarlet F” will be emblazoned on your chest for the remainder of your life.
Because of the difficulty of finding jobs, many inmates turn to entrepreneurship as their futures path. I quickly learned that prison camps are filled with guys gripping hand written business plans on flipping houses or some other strategies where they may be able to earn a living. Dog-earned copies of books promising no-money-down real estate schemes are passed around like sacred religious scrolls. Of course none of these future moguls have any real estate experience. Sadly they’re building their castles on a sand foundation.
I spent some time speaking to a very nice older gentleman who’s been down for several decades. He has a dream–a good dream. He wants to be a long-haul truck driver. He dreams of owning his own rig and traveling the wide-open country side, earning a living and being independent. After years of confinement I can appreciate that type of goal. I have similar dreams but they typically involve a sailboat. But his goal may be hard to achieve.
Unfortunately, when we felons leave the prison system we quickly discover that not only are we virtually unemployable but that we are also can’t even open a bank account or a credit card let alone take out a loan to buy a tractor-tailor. After I was indicted, every bank account, credit card, and brokerage account I had was immediately closed. Felons are often reduced to using very expensive check cashing facilities just to get access to any money that they do manage to earn. For the rest of my life I will have to work around this huge liability. Twenty years of finance experience has equipped me to deal with the problem, but most felons do not have the necessary tools to navigate around being black listed from the modern financial system.
So with little education, low prospects for a job, difficulty establishing a bank account let alone starting a business, they are potentially left with staring down an unfortunate path; the path that led them here in the first place.